Movie Review: Gripping Documentary 'The Cove' Looks at Dolphin Fishing in Japan

"The Cove" director Louie Psihoyos used free-style divers to infiltrate the cove and grab spectacular visuals. (Roadside Attractions Via Associated Press)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

If "The Cove" breaks out of the documentary circuit, it will be a major headache for the Japanese government, the dolphin fishing industry and the small Japanese town of Taiji, where every September dolphins are killed by the thousands. The slaughter is part of a traditional fishing culture, according to the Japanese. But if you succumb to the emotional appeal of this documentary, it emerges not just as a bloody and brutal business but almost as bad as genocide.

The film was funded by Netscape founder and billionaire Jim Clark, and directed by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, who appears as a character in what becomes a high-tech, covert-operations drama.

The townsfolk of Taiji are not interested in the disruptions or moralizing of outside environmental activists. With the help of local politicians and police, they will do anything to thwart camera crews, celebrity interlopers and other guests of Ric O'Barry, a dolphin trainer turned activist who is the garrulous Virgil in this descent into the aquatic inferno.

O'Barry's claim to expertise begins with his experience as the dolphin trainer whose adorable wards appeared on the 1960s television series "Flipper." After watching one of his beloved stars commit suicide -- so he claims -- he experienced a conversion, and his free-the-dolphins activism is cast as a quest for redemption. He wants the world to know the dark secret of the dolphin slaughter at Taiji, and Psihoyos is the man to accomplish it. With a big production budget and access to specialists -- free-style divers who infiltrate the cove, gonzo gear guys who hide microphones in unlikely places, Hollywood equipment geeks who design rocks to conceal high-def cameras -- Psihoyos sets out to get the footage that will force the world to confront the ugly facts of the killing cove.

There is a muscular self-righteousness underneath all of this that cloys at times, especially when the crew indulges in the tired mythology of the documentary maker as hero who transcends even his subject. But perhaps because Psihoyos hasn't directed a film before, he seems intent on packing a lot of compelling information and argument into his narrative, generally a no-no among the slicker breed of documentarians today.

And so the cat-and-mouse game with the locals underscores the degree of local and national Japanese investment in the dolphin fishing industry, and that raises questions. What makes this trade so lucrative? What is its impact on the environment? Why is the Japanese government, already under fire for its annual whale hunts that flout the spirit and probably the letter of international fishing covenants, so adamant about protecting this industry?

Psihoyos does an admirable job of keeping argument within the bounds of entertainment. Among the claims made is that dolphin eating isn't fundamental to Japanese traditional society (as demonstrated by man-on-the-street interviews in large cities); that dolphin meat is often passed off as more valuable whale meat; that it is filled with mercury and may cause a public health disaster; and that the dolphin fishing industry is fueled by the capture business, which supplies live dolphins to theme parks and aquariums for training and show use (the best dolphins are culled for training, the rest are killed).

O'Barry's explosive claim that the world's aquariums and sea parks are complicit in the Taiji dolphin slaughters is vigorously rebutted by members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, including the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Does the National Aquarium take dolphins from the Taiji roundups?

"Categorically not," says communications director Molly Sheehan.

The Japanese position on whaling -- they flout a prohibition on hunting whales under the maddening exception of "scientific research" -- makes them an unsympathetic foil for the filmmakers. But the general narrative format of the film, a secret operation to get morally excoriating footage, casts the Japanese as two-dimensional villains. Americans kill cows, pigs and chickens for food, and we hunt deer in the forest, bears in the mountains, armadillos in the deserts. The emotional pitch of the film is so strong -- we see people weeping over the fate of the dolphins, who struggle to escape and save themselves -- that the filmmakers must neutralize this larger "vegetarian" argument. If you eat meat, can you condemn the killing of dolphins?

The argument takes a difficult turn at this point. O'Barry and others in the film claim that dolphins are not like other animals, they aren't just intelligent, they have a consciousness like human consciousness. Killing them is worse than killing other animals. Even the ancient Greeks knew this, O'Barry says, because they prescribed the death penalty for dolphin killers.

O'Barry goes too far and leads the film into uncomfortable places. Although he is a compelling narrator with pop-culture cred, he comes off as a bit of a crank, a bit too much like the amateur bear expert in Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man."

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